Two rooms sit side-by-side with only a thin paper wall between them. On the one side lies a sleeping woman whose light reveals her silhouette to the darker room’s occupant. He, lit by only a single candle from the stock pile beneath his bed that grows larger each night, has learned to read the writing on the wall—backwards, as he sees it.
She fills the wall daily with new inscriptions, small lines of lyrical text and figural illustrations, black swaths and swirls scripting out various experiences or implied morals and queries erupting from some moment’s fantasy fiction, which she discovers and knows only by getting it out and down, pinning it like an etherized insect to something she can examine. She sees herself this way, a collection of thoughts that must constantly be redrawn; they are always getting away.
On the other side of the wall, he waits until she is asleep to read her work, but sometimes wakes up early and watches the black lines materialize on the membrane he does not know is between them. He sees himself like this, as an observer, a reader. He only ever sees an inversion of her characters. He knows her only by her lines, her edges.
Sometimes, when he wakes up in the middle of the day, though it is dark in his room, he studies her moving shape as she works. Her shadow grows larger, smaller, darker, lighter as she shifts about behind the screen before her nocturnal watcher, still lying in his bed. If he can stay awake long enough, it seems like she writes melodies through the wall into his dreams; half asleep, her words begin to sing.
While she is awake, she can see the flicker of his flame, the small, red-yellow dancing figure that she writes about as a single luminant blade of waving grass, a wind-tossed scarf of warm light, a torn hole in some unseen night. She wonders if she will ever know what it is, sketching it out in details and descriptions to catch it as it burns itself out behind the screen. She never asks its name though, never speaks.
As she goes to sleep, she pulls her mask on to block the light out; it is always on in her sealed room. When she wakes up in the morning, the same light she hid her eyes from meets her there, so she draws windows on the blank walls, always freshly whitened, and fills them in with black ink, imagining what it must be like to know darkness. Though she’s never seen it, she wishes it were real to counterbalance the constant day she lives in. She dreams of the void, of nothing, of places without corners or ceilings.
His space is always dark; even his candle gives into it while he sleeps; when he wakes up it has been extinguished by what he presumes is the appetite of the darkness that must weigh more to fire than to him, being so much smaller. When he looks on her through the thin divider, never wondering if what is on the screen is real, millimeters away—knowable—waiting and listening, he wishes the light her silhouette moves through and around would wash over him so he could see things more clearly, wake up in the daylight and know the radiant light of some great fire that never dies, an unblinking eye.
When he sees her, when he watches her work, when their cycles intersect twice each day—early and late—she appears to him an oracle, the way she speaks to him, the way she shows him how he is in what she says. Whatever she writes, reflects the fire that burns beside him. She says the sort of things he thinks of, but as counter positions. Perhaps, he tells himself, she is an angel who will show him how to escape the darkness with words and images. He imagines the lines carve out the negative space where he somehow knows he resides.
When she writes, awake during the day, she sees his torch. While he sleeps, to her it never moves from its ground, but sways and bobs its body and head, like it is in an anchored trance. Eventually, it wears itself out though, and fades into absence—somewhere else, another room or to sleep, she thinks. If it is an eye, perhaps it finishes looking at her or gets bored reading her scribblings and closes itself up in more interesting dreams.
Now and again, at night, she wakes up briefly even with the mask to block out ambient light, and catches the sound of him whispering. He likes to read what she has written down before the inscriptions fade, like they do while she is not there to attend to them. Those times when she half comes into her senses, she listens as closely as she can without opening her eyes, but the whispers always put her back under. That airy voice she imagines is a spirit behind the wall, the one whose eye is an orange flicker that comes and goes, showing itself only when it wants to be seen. When she sleeps, that breathy sound stays with her; what it tells her she wakes up and writes down so that the next night, she might hear it call to her again.
She never asks it out loud, but always wonders if the dancing eye had a body, if it might burn a hole or a window or a door through the walls and set her free into a cool, dark place where she would finally learn how to sleep. When she imagines this, she jots down the question that is always gone by the time he gets to the part of the wall it erases itself from. Still, she knows the voice and the eye are watching, listening; maybe they will set her free because they must be.
He wishes he could be heard.